From the Archives: Coretta Scott King Built a Legacy by Preserving One
Coretta Scott King, the dignified and determined widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who assumed her murdered husband’s burden as chief symbol of the civil rights movement and fiercely guarded his legacy — often in ways that drew pointed criticism — has died. She was 78.
King, who had heart problems and had suffered a major stroke in August, died at 1 a.m. Tuesday at Santa Monica Health Institute, an alternative medicine center in Rosarito Beach, Mexico, said Lorena Blanco of the U.S. Consulate in Tijuana. Doctors at the clinic told Associated Press that King was fighting advanced ovarian cancer when she arrived there Thursday. She died of respiratory failure.
Her body was delivered to a San Diego mortuary, where it awaited transfer to Atlanta, King’s home for more than 40 years.
Former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, who broke the news in a call to NBC’s “Today” show Tuesday morning, said that one of King’s daughters, Bernice, had tried to wake her mother last night but found she had “quietly slipped away.”
Young hailed King’s strength and said it rivaled her husband’s. “She was strong, if not stronger, than he was,” Young, who worked alongside her husband in the civil rights campaigns of the 1960s, said at a news conference Tuesday. “She lived a graceful and beautiful life and, in spite of all of the difficulties, she managed a graceful and beautiful passing.”
She was, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Taylor Branch said Tuesday, “the last of the people from that era with worldwide resonance, after [the Rev.] King and Rosa Parks,” who died last year at 92. Parks’ civil disobedience on a segregated Alabama bus in 1955 sparked the movement that Martin Luther King Jr. led.
Often called the First Lady of the civil rights movement, Coretta King was sometimes considered pompous or regal, but her bearing “played a political role in the movement,” Branch told The Times. “Her dignity ... served a role that Dr. King valued at a time when black Americans in segregation were stripped of dignity every day. They had to sleep in the back of black funeral parlors because no motels would let them spend the night. Her dignity was very important from the very beginning.”
King was thrown into a life of struggle soon after she married the charismatic minister, whose eloquence and strategy of nonviolence put the fight for racial equality on the nation’s agenda. Although the responsibilities of motherhood and her husband’s traditional thinking about sex roles kept her off the front lines during many of the movement’s pivotal campaigns, she shared his deep commitment to social justice and was a critical influence at key moments in his career.
She helped to win his release from a Georgia prison in 1960 through a widely publicized telephone call from then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. A staunch pacifist, she influenced her husband’s controversial decision in 1967 to speak out against the Vietnam War.
After her husband’s murder in 1968, she fought for more than a decade to establish a federal holiday on his birthday. The goal was finally accomplished in 1983, when President Reagan, yielding to popular pressure, signed the law making Martin Luther King Jr. the only American besides George Washington to be so honored.
She also raised millions of dollars to establish the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change, a popular Atlanta tourist attraction that houses her husband’s tomb, archives and exhibits. She served as its president for two decades.
Her decision to focus the King Center on educational efforts rather than the direct action her husband was famous for disappointed many movement leaders. Some of the slain icon’s closest allies became vocal critics of her when she and her family allowed financial concerns to guide the use of his image and words by scholars and others.
The King family sued to enforce the copyrights on his writings and speeches and offered his archives — at one time valued at $30 million — for sale to the highest bidder. Their actions engendered debate over who King’s ideas belonged to — his estate or the American public — and how much more his survivors should be expected to sacrifice.
Operating in her husband’s long shadow was a challenge that tested King to the end of her life.
“I am often identified as the widow of Martin Luther King Jr.,” she said some years ago. “Sometimes, I am also identified as a civil rights leader or a human rights activist. While these designations are factually correct, I would also like to be thought of as a complex, three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human being with a rich storehouse of experiences, much like everyone else, yet unique in my own way ... much like everyone else.”
King knew more hardship and prejudice from an early age than the man who would one day sweep her into history.
She was born April 27, 1927, on her grandfather’s farm in Heiberger, Ala., about 80 miles south of Montgomery. Her parents, Obadiah and Bernice Scott, grew cotton, and young Coretta hoed and harvested alongside the hired hands. Her father bragged that she was the best cotton picker in the family, capable of pulling in 200 pounds a day.
Obadiah supplemented the family income by hauling lumber for other people. He became the only black man in town to own a truck and eventually owned a sawmill. His success prompted some whites to stop him on the road and threaten him.
Both his house and his sawmill were destroyed in suspicious fires. The culprits were never found.
“I learned very early to live with fear for the people I loved. It was good training,” King wrote in her 1969 memoir, “My Life With Martin Luther King Jr.”
Each day, she and her sister, Edythe, walked three miles to a segregated elementary school outside town while white children rode to theirs in a bus; each day, the buses would “rattle past us in a cloud of dust or a spatter of mud,” Coretta wrote, recalling her hurt and anger.
When she and her sister finished the lower grades, they went to nearby Marion to attend semiprivate Lincoln High School, founded for blacks by white missionaries after the Civil War. There Coretta learned to read music, play piano and sing classical works. To help with her expenses, she took a job in town as a domestic, working for a white woman who wanted her to use the back door and answer every command with “yes, ma’am.” Bristling at these rules, Coretta quickly found herself out of work.
In 1943, Edythe became the first black student to enroll at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Coretta joined her in 1945 and became the first black at Antioch to major in elementary education.
One of the requirements for her major was to spend a year teaching in a public school, but the all-white faculty at the one in town would not accept her, even though some of their students were black. This rejection, Coretta recalled, made her “terribly disillusioned and upset.” Finding no sympathy for her grievances, she resigned herself to teaching at the school on campus and channeled her frustrations into the Antioch chapter of the NAACP.
Then she met Paul Robeson, the famed baritone and activist, who heard her sing at a political event and urged her to pursue voice training. She shifted the focus of her studies to music and began to envision a career as an activist-artist such as Robeson.
In 1951, King won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She arrived with $15 in her pocket. When her money ran out, she survived on peanut butter and crackers until a school counselor helped her arrange to perform housework in exchange for her board.
In early 1952, a friend asked if she would be interested in meeting a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta who was studying for his doctorate at Boston University. She hesitated when she heard that the young man was a minister, fearing that he would be too pious and narrow-minded for her taste. But she agreed to a blind date.
When she first laid eyes on Martin Luther King Jr., she considered him short and unimpressive. But when he spoke, she said, “he grew in stature,” revealing charisma, intelligence and moral passion. After an animated conversation about music, race, economic injustice and peace, Martin made his feelings known.
“So you can do something else besides sing? You’ve got a good mind also. You have everything I ever wanted in a woman. We ought to get married someday,” he told her.
Although nearly 25 and somewhat past the prime marrying age for women of the era, Coretta did not leap into romance: She had been disappointed in love before. She also knew marriage would spell the end of her plans for a singing career.
Nonetheless, she and the young doctoral student courted intensely over the next months. When she realized she was not the only object of his affections, she invited his other girlfriends to a surprise party for him -- and coolly eliminated them from contention.
“Coretta was all graciousness, thereby making it clear that she was in charge,” Young, who was one of King’s top lieutenants in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wrote in his 1996 memoir, “An Easy Burden.” “It was a nonviolent way to deal with one’s opposition that Martin couldn’t help but respect.”
Her resolve did not weaken in the face of fierce opposition from Martin’s father. The Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. was pressuring his son to choose a wife from within their own comfortably middle-class circle in Atlanta. But “Daddy King” ultimately gave Coretta his blessing and presided over the marriage ceremony in the garden of her parents’ home in Alabama on June 19, 1953.
Later that summer Martin was offered the pastorship of Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Ala. Although Coretta was reluctant to give up the freedom and opportunities she had grown to enjoy in the North, she moved to Montgomery with Martin in September, after she earned her degree in voice and violin. Martin had barely finished his doctoral dissertation when Coretta discovered she was pregnant. Their first child, Yolanda Denise, was born Nov. 17, 1955.
A couple weeks later, on Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks boarded a crowded Montgomery bus and refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. She was arrested for violating the state’s bus segregation law, which ignited a fury among Montgomery’s blacks that would ripple across the South. Local black leaders formed the ad hoc Montgomery Improvement Assn. and called for a bus boycott.
The man chosen to lead the protest was the young minister from Dexter Avenue Church.
Earlier, Martin had been offered the presidency of the local NAACP, but Coretta had talked him out of it by arguing that it would deprive the church of too much of his attention. “Coretta’s opposition probably resulted in one of the luckiest decisions of my life,” Martin later wrote. “For when the bus protest movement broke out, I would hardly have been able to accept the presidency of the Montgomery Improvement Assn. without lending weight to the oft-made white contention that the whole thing was an NAACP conspiracy.”
Martin became the most famous black man in America when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Nov. 13, 1956, that Montgomery’s bus segregation laws were unconstitutional. His reputation continued to grow, particularly after the 1963 March on Washington, when he galvanized the nation with a clarion call for justice in his stirring “I Have a Dream” speech. The following year he reaped the world’s accolades as the recipient of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize.
But peril was ever-present. The Kings’ house in Montgomery was bombed in 1956 when Coretta was at home with baby Yolanda. No one was hurt. Then, in 1958, Martin was stabbed in the heart by a deranged black woman in Harlem; doctors said if he had sneezed, he would have died.
He also was jailed numerous times, the most traumatic imprisonment coming in 1960, shortly after the Kings moved to Atlanta, the headquarters of the newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He had been sentenced to six months’ hard labor in a remote Georgia penitentiary on charges stemming from having an invalid driver’s license. Coretta feared he would be killed in prison.
His incarceration was cut short only through the intercession of Kennedy, who called Coretta from the campaign trail to offer his help. His brother and campaign manager, Robert F. Kennedy, got the sentencing judge on the telephone and demanded the Rev. King’s release. The influential activist was freed the next day.
News of Kennedy’s support for the Rev. King was spread through pamphlets disseminated in black churches on the Sunday before the election. Historians later viewed the support of black voters as crucial to Kennedy’s slim victory over GOP nominee Richard M. Nixon.
Plunged into the movement so soon after marrying, the Kings had little time to develop a normal family life. Martin traveled constantly: He was in jail or away on movement business when Martin III and Dexter were born in 1957 and 1961, respectively, and nearly missed the arrival of Bernice in 1963.
He wanted Coretta to stay home and raise their family, so she rarely joined him on the front lines of marches, which bred resentment. As she pointedly told a reporter once, “My husband says, ‘You have to take care of the children.’ ”
He may have had other reasons to keep her at home, according to biographers and former colleagues.
The Rev. King had affairs with other women and grew particularly close to one woman, according to David J. Garrow in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1986 book “Bearing the Cross, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.” Garrow wrote of how the FBI bugged the Rev. King’s hotel rooms and sent a sampling of its evidence of his extramarital couplings to the SCLC headquarters.
Family finances were another strain. Martin gave away most of his modest income; in the early days in Atlanta, they lived on lecture fees and his salary of $6,000 a year from Ebenezer Baptist Church, where he co-pastored with his father. He kept none of the $54,000 in Nobel prize money, even though Coretta had wanted to set aside $20,000 for their children’s college funds. But Martin “felt that the prize was an award to the movement in general, rather than to him individually, and that the entire amount should be used in the struggle and not for the benefit of his family,” according to Garrow.
Despite Martin’s desire for Coretta to remain at home as much as possible, he encouraged her participation in another movement. She had been a member since her college days of the antiwar group Women’s Strike for Peace. At Martin’s urging, she joined a delegation of the group that went to Geneva in 1962 for atomic test ban talks. She also was a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. In 1969, she helped lead a quarter of a million people on the first “moratorium” protesting the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C.
“I think, on many points, she educated me,” Martin said in an interview with Arnold Michaelis in 1967, the year he finally broke with other civil rights leaders who wanted him to remain silent on the war. “I wish I could say, to satisfy my masculine ego, that I led her down this path; but I must say we went down together, because she was as actively involved and concerned when we met as she is now.”
Coretta also raised money for the civil rights movement by organizing a series of Freedom Concerts, the first of which took place in New York City in 1964. They were modeled on a program held Dec. 5, 1956, the first anniversary of the Montgomery boycott, in which she, Duke Ellington, Harry Belafonte and other performers told the story of the Montgomery struggle through music, poetry and prose.
Rep. John Lewis, a Democratic congressman from Georgia who marched with her husband and was an early leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, recalled being stirred by her performance in Nashville in 1958.
“I was struck, not just by her beauty, but by the pure grace of her presence.... [S]he sang, all alone on the stage, spirituals like ‘Steal Away’ and ‘There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land,’ and some old slave songs. She recited a poem or two as well. It was mesmerizing, just her by herself, a one-woman show,” Lewis wrote in his 1998 memoir, “Walking With the Wind.”
She eventually gave more than 30 concerts and raised more than $50,000 for the cause.
Coretta was at home with the children on the afternoon of April 4, 1968, when she received the news that her husband had been shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where he had gone to support a strike by sanitation workers. She was at the Atlanta airport waiting for the next plane to Memphis when word came that her husband had died of his wounds. Observers later would remark on her calm in the midst of the misery, confusion and anger spawned by his murder.
King was 40 and her husband 39; they had been married for 14 years. Their four children ranged from 5 to 13 when he died.
President Johnson proclaimed a national day of mourning for King’s funeral on April 9, 1968. The dignified widow in mourning dress gave the era one of its iconic images, as stirring as that of Jacqueline Kennedy at her husband’s funeral five years earlier. The civil rights leader’s death led his wife into the limelight. Before burying her husband, she flew to Memphis to take his place at the head of the protest march by garbage workers whose plight had brought him to the city. A month later, she helped to open the Poor Peoples’ Campaign that he had been planning before his death.
She was elected to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference board. But while others expected her to raise her children and fulfill the symbolic role of widow of the martyr, she wanted to be a leader and carry on her husband’s work.
“This caused incredible tension within the SCLC staff,” Young wrote. “Ralph [Abernathy, King’s top lieutenant in the organization] and the board wanted to use Coretta to raise money for SCLC, but they didn’t want her to play any kind of policy role in the organization. The men in SCLC were incapable of dealing with a strong woman like Coretta, who was insisting on being treated as an equal.”
Abernathy eventually was chosen to lead the conference. King became the custodian of her late husband’s legacy.
In 1969 she began to mobilize support for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Change. She eventually raised $15 million to build the complex, which opened in 1982. Located within a 23-acre national historic park that includes his birth home, the center houses his tomb, a museum, a gift shop and archives. King ran the center as president.
Within a few years after her husband’s death, she also channeled her energy into a long and difficult drive to establish a King holiday.
After repeated failures in Congress to pass a bill, the King family in 1971 backed a mule train that deposited at the Capitol millions of signatures in favor of the holiday. Over the next several years, other endorsements came in the form of a song titled “Happy Birthday” by Stevie Wonder and successful state bills establishing a King holiday. But federal legislation was blocked by formidable opponents, including Sens. Jesse Helms of North Carolina and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who argued that the holiday’s price tag in federal overtime would be too steep.
Finally, in 1983, black leaders approached Rep. Jack Kemp, a Republican from New York, to lead the charge. They arranged for Coretta King to personally plead the case for the holiday. Kemp would later compare his meeting with King to “sitting down with Mother Teresa.” He agreed to champion the bill.
The legislation cleared Congress on Nov. 19, 1983, and was signed by President Reagan two weeks later. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday became the 10th national holiday and only the second named for an American. (The first was George Washington; Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is observed only in some states.) Coretta King led the commission that planned the first annual celebration festivities in Atlanta on Jan. 20, 1986.
“The holiday wouldn’t have happened without her,” Lewis, the Georgia congressman, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1993.
The same was true of the King Center, which annually attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. She led the Atlanta center from its inception in 1969 until 1994, when she turned over the management to Dexter. It is now headed by his brother, Martin Luther III.
They survive her along with daughters Yolanda and Bernice and a sister, Edythe Scott Bagley, of Cheyney, Pa.
The King Center has been attacked over the years for a lack of activism, and it has struggled financially. In the 1990s it began to run large deficits, and by 2005 it needed $11.6 million in repairs. The future of the center became the subject of an ugly family squabble, with Dexter and Yolanda pushing to sell the institution to the National Park Service despite the objections of Martin III and Bernice.
Several years earlier the King family had tried to block a National Park Service proposal to open its own exhibit on the Rev. King, arguing that it would detract from the family-run center across the street. The Kings and the Park Service eventually resolved their differences, but the dispute tarnished the Kings’ image.
Other controversies only sharpened the criticism that King and her family were putting personal profit before public interest.
The King estate sold the rights to the Rev. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech for use in cellphone commercials while it limited access to his papers by serious scholars and journalists. It forced USA Today, for example, to pay $1,700 plus legal fees after the newspaper published the text of the historic speech. It also sued CBS for selling a video documentary that made extensive use of the network’s own film of the Rev. King and the March on Washington.
Coretta King, a self-professed workaholic who often called staff members late at night, never took a salary from the center but supported herself through speaking fees and royalties from her autobiography and her late husband’s writings.
She established herself as an advocate of women’s rights and full employment in the 1970s, campaigned against apartheid in the 1980s, and was a keynote speaker at the U.N. International Day of Solidarity with the Women of South Africa and Namibia in 1984. The following year she was arrested with daughter Bernice at a rally outside the South African Embassy in Washington. In 1994, she shared the dais with Nelson Mandela after he won the first nonracial government election in South Africa.
She also was a supporter of same-sex marriage, which she called a civil rights issue. “Her own daughter disagreed with her on that,” Branch, the civil rights historian, noted in an interview Tuesday. Bernice King, a minister in Atlanta, helped lead a march to promote an anti-gay marriage agenda in 2004.
Coretta King “felt nonviolence should be applied not just in the race movement but in international affairs, the fight against poverty ... and in supporting gay rights,” Branch said. “She ... applied nonviolence across the board. That was her spiritual legacy. She deserves some credit for that.”
She made news again in 1997, when she gave emotional testimony in a hearing to support reopening the case of James Earl Ray, her husband’s convicted killer, who was dying of liver disease. She believed that her husband had been the victim of a conspiracy that likely involved agents of the government and that Ray, who had confessed to the crime and later recanted, was innocent. He died in 1998 before a new trial could be ordered; King called his death a tragedy.
In 2004 she finally moved from the four-bedroom family home in Atlanta that she had shared with her husband after several break-ins convinced her it was unsafe. She relocated to a condominium in the exclusive Buckhead area of Atlanta.
She became a vegetarian after she began to experience serious health problems, which included atrial fibrillation, a heart disorder that causes blood clots. Last year she spent several weeks in an Atlanta hospital after a heart attack and a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak.
She never remarried, nor have any of her children married. Dexter suggested in his memoir, “Growing Up King,” that he and his siblings have remained single in part because of the pressure of their father’s towering achievements and the trauma of his violent death.
“There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about Martin,” Coretta Scott King once said. “He was my source of inspiration. Martin and I were soul mates. When he died, a part of me died.”
Times staff writer Richard Marosi contributed to this report.
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